Chicago’s Grammy magic

Mojo comes from a group of cre­ative women on the city’s new clas­si­cal mu­sic scene

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - A+E - By Xe­nia Hanu­siak Xe­nia Hanu­siak is a free­lance writer.

If win­ning a Grammy is a sign of cre­ative achieve­ment then Chicago could well be de­scribed as the con­tem­po­rary clas­si­cal mu­sic epi­cen­ter of the world. Year after year for the past two decades, a Grammy cer­e­mony doesn’t pass with­out the name of a Chicago mu­si­cian, pro­ducer, or en­sem­ble etched on one of its gilded tro­phies.

There are a few ex­pla­na­tions for this sus­tained record of achieve­ment, but there is one com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor: women. To­gether, the names of Ju­lia Nicols-Corry, Deirdre Har­ri­son, Reba Ca­farelli and Alyssa Martinez form a su­per pack of women who di­rect the op­er­a­tions be­hind the cre­ative vir­tu­os­ity of Cedille, Eighth Black­bird, Third Coast Per­cus­sion and the Spek­tral Quar­tet. On Sun­day, Third Coast hopes to re­peat its 2017 vic­tory as the best cham­ber mu­sic/ small en­sem­ble, and Nathalie Joachim — former flautist of the four-time Grammy-win­ning Eighth Black­bird — cel­e­brates her first nom­i­na­tion with her de­but al­bum “Fanm d’Ay­iti” — a col­lab­o­ra­tion with the thrice-nom­i­nated Spek­tral.

The unique story of women at the helm on Chicago’s art mu­sic scene is a lin­eage that be­gins with Grammy Award-win­ning com­poser Au­gusta Read Thomas, and passes to Lisa Ka­plan, the pi­anist, found­ing mem­ber and Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of Eighth Black­bird.

Thomas reigns as the ma­tri­arch. As the Chicago Tri­bune’s 2016 Chicagoan of Year, Thomas’ ac­co­lades and ac­com­plish­ments eas­ily fill four re­sumes. The in­de­fati­ga­ble pi­o­neer spear­headed the Ear Taxi Fes­ti­val in 2016, brand­ing Chicago as a new-mu­sic town. In 2017 — through her po­si­tion as pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Chicago — Thomas in­sti­tuted the Chicago

Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Com­po­si­tion. She de­scribes her suc­cess as a “life­time of work, a whole gestalt of be­ing ac­tive.” When I ask her about the in­flu­ence of Ear Taxi on the lo­cal con­tem­po­rary scene, she sim­ply replies, “My three years of ac­tion speak louder than any words I can say to you.” The marathon two-day fes­ti­val brought to­gether 350 mu­si­cians, per­form­ing 54 world pre­mieres. Her al­tru­ism ap­pears end­less: “My role is to deepen the path,” she says.

Thomas’ roll-up-yoursleeve­s at­ti­tude is em­blem­atic of the women she men­tors. There is true grit at play as Chicago women defy the odds in an in­dus­try known for its gen­dered divi­sion of la­bor. The record for women’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in clas­si­cal mu­sic is bleak. Mu­si­col­o­gist and so­ci­ol­o­gist Hy­acinthe Ravet, the Vice-Dean of Equal­ity at Paris-Sor­bonne Univer­sity noted in a 2016 study that “women make up ap­prox­i­mately 10% of com­posers of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic and a quar­ter of mu­si­cians while about one third of ac­tors are women.” In 2019, women com­posed 3% of the mu­sic per­formed by or­ches­tras across the globe, ac­cord­ing to Deb­o­rah Borda, pres­i­dent of the New York Phil­har­monic in a re­cent interview.

De­spite the low prob­a­bil­i­ties, Nicols-Corry, Har­ri­son, Ca­farelli and

Martinez have carved out dis­tinc­tive, mul­ti­fac­eted ca­reers. As the chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Eighth Black­bird, Har­ri­son leads the ad­min­is­tra­tion for the 23-year-old en­sem­ble. With a dou­ble Bach­e­lor of Arts de­gree from Yale Univer­sity and ac­tors’ train­ing from Lon­don’s Royal Academy of Arts, Har­ri­son de­toured to ad­min­is­tra­tion in 2002 be­cause, she says, of “eco­nom­ics and the U.S. Health sys­tem.” As coartis­tic direc­tor of the band The Lucky Strikes, Har­ri­son says her “sto­ry­teller train­ing helps with lead­er­ship func­tions.”

Ca­farelli be­gan her stud­ies as a bas­soon­ist at the East­man School of Mu­sic, but her en­tre­pre­neur­ial flair led her to the Chicago Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Com­po­si­tion and Ear Taxi Fes­ti­val, be­fore she landed in her present po­si­tion as ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Third Coast Per­cus­sion. Martinez, de­vel­op­ment and pro­duc­tion co­or­di­na­tor for Spek­tral Quar­tet, brings creativ­ity as a poet and vis­ual artist.

The con­tri­bu­tions of these women cre­ate a corner­stone of the suc­cess of these ensem­bles, but their achieve­ments ce­ment it even fur­ther. These women are agents of em­pow­er­ment for other women. Long be­fore the celebrity in­flu­encers of Hol­ly­wood’s #me­too ral­lied for gen­der par­ity in their in­dus­try, Chicago’s trail­blaz­ers have been prov­ing how women pro­mot­ing women is one of the most pow­er­ful acts of sol­i­dar­ity.

When Brook­lyn flautist Joachim moved to Chicago to join Eighth Black­bird five years ago, her solo projects were buoyed by the sup­port of women’s net­works across the arts and business com­mu­ni­ties. She says, “Women sup­port­ing women’s work is not (akin) to to­kenism.” Her “Fanm d’Ay­iti” (Women in Haiti) is the re­sult. “This de­but al­bum is my very first step in claim­ing my iden­tity in my mu­sic as a Haitian woman, as a black woman and as an Amer­i­can fe­male com­poser.” Martinez agrees that “men­tor­ship in the arts is es­sen­tial, and when it can hap­pen from woman to woman, even bet­ter. In Chicago, I see the same tal­ented women pop­ping up in dif­fer­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions, roles and ca­pac­i­ties over the years, on both the ad­min­is­tra­tive and cre­ative sides of projects. They make Chicago mu­sic great.”

Har­ri­son de­scribes her fel­low col­leagues as “rad­i­cally gen­er­ous women.” “We of­ten com­mu­ni­cate by email or calls, share tem­plates, con­tacts or idea,” she says. “We want to nur­ture the process of sup­port­ing each other’s growth.”

Pre­sid­ing over glob­ally rec­og­nized ensem­bles and their Grammy nom­i­na­tions re­quires this same col­lab­o­ra­tive, nur­tur­ing spirit. As direc­tor of op­er­a­tions at Cedille since 2015, Ni­chol­sCorry par­tic­i­pates in all as­pects of the pro­duc­tion process from the mo­ment artists pro­pose a record­ing project, to the record­ing ses­sions, to manag­ing the re­lease and mar­ket­ing the fin­ished prod­uct. Ni­chol­sCorry says her ful­fill­ment comes from “see­ing first­hand the im­pact how Cedille’s record­ings have on an artist’s ca­reer.”

These record­ings can el­e­vate the city’s mu­sic scene. They also feed into the morale and cre­ative en­ergy of the next gen­er­a­tion, and can lead to other ac­co­lades.

Har­ri­son be­lieves that a Grammy win has “real power in the cham­ber mu­sic world. It be­comes part of a nar­ra­tive and iden­tity that can open doors.” For Chicago ensem­bles, the door-open­ing Gram­mys lead to ex­panded tour­ing sched­ules, fas­ci­nat­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions and new ini­tia­tives. Third Coast Per­cus­sion has per­formed across 33 states, in ad­di­tion to engagement­s in Colom­bia, United King­dom, Lithua­nia, Tai­wan and Ger­many. The quar­tet has worked with ar­chi­tects at the Frank Lloyd Wright Foun­da­tion and mu­si­cians from Zim­babwe’s Shona peo­ple.

For Eighth Black­bird, the tri­umphs have at­tracted new re­sources to en­able the Black­bird Cre­ative Lab net­work to gen­er­ate fur­ther com­mis­sions and ig­nite com­mu­nity en­gage­ment. In May, Cedille hosts its first record­ing com­pe­ti­tion for young Chicago clas­si­cal mu­si­cians. And its in­clu­sive pol­icy has al­lowed far rang­ing in­de­pen­dent record­ing projects such Chicago Sin­foni­etta’s African Her­itage Se­ries to suc­ceed.

Chicago’s ensem­bles are built on in­de­fati­ga­ble work ethic and out­side-the-box think­ing. These qual­i­ties can flour­ish in Chicago be­cause the city al­lows a work-life bal­ance, and an af­ford­able life­style that the more sat­u­rated mu­si­cal cap­i­tals of the world can’t of­fer. When there is space to breathe and ac­cess to com­mu­nity, ideas and in­no­va­tions pros­per.

“There is a wider mar­gin for risk and you need that room if you are try­ing to push the en­ve­lope ar­tis­ti­cally,” says Ca­farelli. “I worked with Au­gusta Read Thomas for many years and she al­ways said some­thing to the ef­fect that the his­tory of the world is writ­ten in art. This has re­ally stuck with me. Long after we are all gone, the mu­sic of our time will re­main. Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions in­ter­pret the world and learn from us through what we cre­ate now and leave be­hind for them.”


Au­gusta Read Thomas ad­dresses the au­di­ence be­fore a per­for­mance of the Gross­man En­sem­ble.


Nathalie Joachim per­forms at the Chicago Chap­ter Nom­i­nee Re­cep­tion on Jan. 17.

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